Friday, 12 June 2020
Ian Rushbury - Interviews Captain Wilberforce
Captain Wilberforce’s Simon Bristoll is actually J Mascis, trapped in the body of Neil Finn. You heard it here first. He confesses to I Don’t Hear a Single, that “a little bit of me dies when people say to me "you guys are great - you remind me of Crowded House." Don’t get me wrong, I love Crowded House, but I'd really love someone to say, "you guys really remind me of Dinosaur Jr!"” Sadly, although Bristoll’s ultra-melodic work has many times been compared to that of Mr. Finn, as yet, critics have still to draw a line between Captain Wilberforce and the sludge-rock supremos he so clearly idolises. Unfortunately for Simon, that probably won’t be changing in the near future.
“When The Dust Just Won’t Settle” is Captain Wilberforce’s fifth album of effortlessly memorable pop rock and they still haven’t even got a Wikipedia page. Something is very wrong with this picture. Although he may be frustrated, Bristoll isn’t bitter: “It’s great being one of England's better-known Power Pop bands.” He says. “We can stand out a bit. In my head, we sound like a poppy version of Radiohead with a bit of Jellyfish, Brendan Benson and Jon Brion. We’re trying to write interesting, non-generic music, but not to the point where its deliberately obtuse.”
Like the rest of the western world, Bristoll is currently cooling his heels while the plague rats have their fun, which may be bad timing, as he has an album to promote… It’s been almost three years since his last album, the stellar “Black Sky Thinking”, so I Don’t Hear a Single was keen to hear just how he’d been passing the time:
“It always takes us a while to get music out. It doesn’t take long to write it, generally, We’re pretty good at getting new songs written and put together as a band. We had a really brilliant set up in a studio in Bradford, where we had our own mini-studio in a rehearsal room complex. For whatever reason, the studio closed, so we got kicked out of it, just after we'd demoed everything and we were about to record the album.
Our guitarist Rob Simpson and the guy who owned the studio said that they were going to find a new space and build a studio from scratch. Well, they’ve done it and it's amazing - it’s called Trapdoor Studio in Bradford. Rob said, “it'll take a couple of months to get sorted”, and a year later here we are”
Captain Wilberforce was initially a one-man band – have you finally got a stable group now?
"Definitely. The line-up that we had with Carl on drums, Rob on guitar and Max on bass was stable for a couple of years and now we’re joined by Dave on bass, so it’s a tight unit. I don't want to be in a band where I'm working with people I don't like and luckily, I've never been in that position. I've seen it and it's horrible. To me, the most important thing is getting people who click. If they're great at their instruments - and I think these guys are - then it’s fantastic."
What’s it like being a middle-aged man in a garage band, then?
"Twenty years ago, when I was in my previous band, Theory of Everything, we used to rehearse five days a week, six hours a day, then we'd go and gig everywhere - we had no money whatsoever. We’d have to sleep in the van with the gear. We just went out and did it and we didn't care. That obviously goes out of the window when you have a mortgage and kids.
Now we rehearse, record and then do gigs around the release of the recording. Unfortunately, our drummer, Carl was quite ill for a while, he was in hospital for a bit, Then our bass player Max, who's from Italy, had to go back there as a result of a family bereavement and he’s ended up staying there.
We managed to get the album recorded with him in the end, sending sound files from Italy to England, but it took a long time and it was really frustrating. You just grin and bear it and come up with more songs."
You seem to have made the transition from Todd Rundgren style “I-play-everything” megalomania to a “proper band” pretty seamlessly?
"The one thing we wanted to do more of, but we didn't really get the chance to, was to record as a live band. We tended to record bass and drums and then put guitar, keyboards and then vocals on. If and when we get out of this pandemic situation, we'll have it set up so that we can do loads more in the way of actually playing together.
One thing I've learned from watching loads and loads of documentaries about old producers from the sixties and seventies, is that they all talk about the magic of a band all playing together. That magic is difficult to get when you're playing to a click track. My dream is to get to the point where we can set up as if we are playing at a gig, record, and then take the best of that and enhance it."
You can’t beat a bit of eye-contact when you’re recording.
"You get a small amount when you're doing that when you're recording just bass and drums, but the pressure then is really on just one or two people. It's better if the pressure is spread over the four of you, that way, no one person is under scrutiny. If all four of you have the potential to make mistakes, it’s a knife-edge and that can really inspire you."
I see you’re still the sole songwriter though.
"The way that the songs generally get written, is that I come up with the basic songs myself and the band will add their parts to them. I'm a benevolent dictator, in as much as I like to be in charge of whatever ends up on the record."
Your last album, “Black Sky Thinking” was a very dark record. Have you cheered up a bit since then?
"Well, my daughter keeps telling that I write nothing but love songs, but I think they're more about relationships. I’m a bit of a magpie and I steal from other people’s lives. I’ll watch friends and their relationships and sometimes, I’ll take things from my own life, but as an observer.
I'm not like Bukowski, I'm not writing about personal struggle and misery. I'm a nice middle class, white, straight, male - God how much more privileged could I get! So, I try to steal other people's emotions. In some ways that works really well as I can get an interesting perspective and twist things around."
Aren’t you in danger of living vicariously through other people?
"I have had people say that because I’m not speaking from my own heart, it won't hit people hard enough/ I would counter that something like "The Girl Who Broke Her Own Heart", which is one of the songs that people like the most of what I do, was written about someone else's relationship.
I don't think it matters as long as it's sung and performed with conviction. Elton John has had an entire career singing lyrics written by another person. At least mine are coming from my own perspective even though they're not my own actual emotions."
By way of a contrast, I assume this record is stuffed with feelgood anthems.
"It's very, very difficult to write a great happy song in my opinion. That song “Happy” by Pharell Williams is genius, because it's so difficult to come up with a song like that that isn't massively cheesy. It's still a bit cheesy, but it's difficult to do that well. It’s much easier to be maudlin, melancholy and get people when they're down.
The songs I used to listen to when I was having relationship troubles were things like Red House Painters and American Music Club. Some of those songs are just heart-breaking. Those are the songs I find easiest to write. This new album probably isn't much cheerier than “Black Sky Thinking”!"
Yikes… what’s made you sound like this, then?
"That's really difficult. I think essentially all my influencing happened at a very early age, listening to The Beatles. I know - what a boring answer. There were loads of Beatles albums around the house, growing up and those were the records that I obsessed over.
Even though it was the early eighties and there were great bands like The Police and Specials around. I loved those bands, but it was The Beatles that got me, especially the mid-to late-era stuff. Also, the fact that they constantly changed and constantly got more and more interesting."
Aside from Beatles re-issues, has anything new, hot and happening caught your ear?
"Recently, I don't think I've heard anything that's made me go, "Right, I'm going to have that." The record that's been on my stereo the most over the last year is probably the latest Radiohead album which I think is unbelievably good. I've been listened to a lot of Bowie too.
Because my kids listen to all sorts of new music, they've introduced me to stuff like Modest Mouse and Everything Everything. I don't know how much they've influenced me. I listen to 6Music a lot and there's loads of new and interesting stuff on there."
Do you listen to anything left-field? Napalm Death? Skrillex? Kylie?
"I love heavier music - I'd love to play heavier music myself, but I haven't got the voice for it. I spent years listening to Husker Du, Replacements, Soul Asylum, Lemonheads. Dinosaur Jr, Jesus and Mary Chain- pretty heavy stuff. I just can't sing like that.
I’d love to go on stage and do a Nirvana cover, but there's no way in the world I could do it. It would just sound like a choirboy trying to do it. I saw Dinosaur Jr in Birmingham a few years ago. J Mascis walked out on stage alone, turned around and threw up. I thought “That’s rock and roll!”
That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a singer in a Power Pop band should say.
"OK! Here's my quote for you: There are no Power Pop bands, there are only Power Pop songs and certain bands write more Power Pop songs than others. The Beatles are supposedly a Power Pop band, but they also did stuff like Eleanor Rigby.
Labels can be deceptive. people say we're an alternative band. Alternative to what? Alternative to successful, definitely! Are we indie? There are tons of labels who proclaim that they're indie, but they're offshoots of major labels like Sony.
If I say we're pop, my daughter would think that we must sound like Little Mix and Dua Lipa. But we are a pop band, in as much as we're in the canon of popular music - sort of. And yet we’re rock because we use guitar, bass and drums and have a singer."
With live gigs out of the question, how do you plan to get this album to the people?
"Having done an online album launch, one of the things I've thought about, as we're probably not going to make it to America for example, anytime soon, is that as we have a great new studio space that we could set it up like a gig. Film us performing live to as many people as we could get to watch.
That way we would save a hell of a lot of money on petrol, flights and anything else. We could bring in backing vocalists, keyboards, horns and strings. I'd love to have more backing vocals, as for me Captain Wilberforce is all about the backing vocals. To not have those at gigs, gets to me sometimes. Also, some people don't want to travel halfway across the country to see us. I'm trying to convince the band that it’s a good idea!"
From there on, The Gallagher brothers (“the people who last the longest in the music industry will have a superficial charm if nothing else.”), dealing with criticism (“you get twenty positive comments and one negative comment and you always take the negative comment to heart.”). Squealing like a fangirl when he had a Twitter post retweeted by Roger Manning Jr are all debated at length, until our government approved, correctly social-distanced, Zoom call terminates.
As of May 2020, Captain Wilberforce remain bafflingly obscure, in spite of being a relatively big fish in a relatively small pond. “When the Dust Just Won’t Settle” deserves to change that forever, but that means that someone (i.e., you) will need to buy it. Or at the very least, make a bloody Wikipedia page for them.
“When the Dust Just Won’t Settle” is available to buy and listen to via Bandcamp here. Captain Wilberforce Back Catalogue is also available there. You can buy the CD from Kool Kat in the U.S here.
You can read the IDHAS Review of Black Sky Thinking here and the new album will be reviewed by Don on here next week.